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Undernews for December 3, 2010

Undernews for December 3, 2010

Since 1964, the news while there's still time to do something about it

Citigroup considers repaying Obama's budget director in kind: with a job

Bloomberg - Citigroup Inc., recovering from its $45 billion bailout in 2008, is in advanced talks to hire former White House Budget Director Peter Orszag, people with knowledge of the matter said.

Orszag, 41, may take a job in the New York-based firm’s investment-banking division, the people said, declining to be identified because the discussions are private. An announcement may come as early as today, one of the people said.

Orszag, an economist trained at Princeton University and the London School of Economics, helped shape U.S. economic stimulus during the financial crisis and over

SEC favored Bank of America in law violations

Washington Post - The Securities and Exchange Commission showed leniency toward Bank of America in penalizing the firm for securities law violations last year because the financially weakened bank was on taxpayer-backed life support, according to a new watchdog report.

The agency agreed to a settlement that was "favorable" to the bank "because of the nation's perilous economic situation at the time" and the fact that it had received billions of dollars in taxpayer aid, according to the report by the SEC's inspector general. Specifically, during settlement negotiations, Bank of America won relief from sanctions that could have hurt its investment banking business.

Wikileaks loses Amazon web site

Zero Hedge - An update from Reuters: "Amazon.com ceases hosting services for WikiLeaks website -Senator Lieberman" and "DHS says Amazon has agreed to stop hosting WikiLeaks." Game Over

It seems the days of Wikileaks are over. The question now is who will be the next Wikileaks.

The website of WikiLeaks, the organization that just released a trove of sensitive U.S. State Department documents, appears to have lost or left its main Web host, Amazon.com.

The main website and a sub-site devoted to the diplomatic documents were unavailable from the U.S. and Europe on Wednesday, as Amazon servers refused to acknowledge requests for data.

Availability of the sites has been spotty since Sunday, when it started to come under a series of Internet-based attacks by unknown hackers. WikiLeaks dealt with the attacks in part by moving to servers run by Amazon Web Services, which is self-service.

Amazon.com Inc. would not comment on its relationship with WikiLeaks or whether it forced the site to leave. Messages seeking comment from WikiLeaks were not immediately returned.

Thoroughly embedded media goes after Wikileaks

Glenn Greenwald, Salon - With some exceptions, we have the group which -- so very revealingly -- is the angriest and most offended about the WikiLeaks disclosures: the American media, Our Watchdogs over the Powerful and Crusaders for Transparency. On CNN, Wolf Blitzer was beside himself with rage over the fact that the U.S. government had failed to keep all these things secret from him. . .

Then -- like the Good Journalist he is -- Blitzer demanded assurances that the Government has taken the necessary steps to prevent him, the media generally and the citizenry from finding out any more secrets: "Do we know yet if they've [done] that fix? In other words, somebody right now who has top secret or secret security clearance can no longer download information onto a C.D. or a thumb drive? Has that been fixed already?" The central concern of Blitzer -- one of our nation's most honored "journalists" -- is making sure that nobody learns what the U.S. Government is up to.

Then there's the somewhat controversial claim that our major media stars are nothing more than Government spokespeople and major news outlets little more than glorified state-run media. Blitzer's CNN reporting provided the best illustration I've seen in awhile demonstrating how true that is. . .

One's reaction to WikiLeaks is largely shaped by whether or not one, on balance, supports what the U.S. has been covertly doing in the world by virtue of operating in the dark. I concur wholeheartedly with Digby's superb commentary on this point yesterday:

"My personal feeling is that any allegedly democratic government that is so hubristic that it will lie blatantly to the entire world in order to invade a country it has long wanted to invade probably needs a self-correcting mechanism. There are times when it's necessary that the powerful be shown that there are checks on its behavior, particularly when the systems normally designed to do that are breaking down. Now is one of those times." . . .

GOP blocks aid to 800,000 jobless in order to protect millionaire tax cuts

AFL-CIO - At the stroke of midnight last night, some 800,000 workers who have been looking for jobs for more than six months lost their unemployment insurance¬2 million will be without help by the end of December. Why? Because congressional Republicans have chosen to side with the nation’s millionaires instead of the jobless.

They chose to extend the Bush-era tax cuts for the wealthy as their top priority this lame-duck session and essentially have told workers struggling to find work in an economy with five job hunters for every opening: “Tough luck. Happy holidays.”

Before leaving for the Thanksgiving recess, Republicans blocked a move in the U.S. House that would have maintained the extended benefits program through February. On Monday, Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) introduced legislation to maintain the UI lifeline for a full year. But last night, Republicans used Senate rules to block a vote on the bill.

Note: These rules were instituted by the Democrats when they held a comfortable majority in the Senate. Th Review was one of the few voices opposing these rules at the time - TPR

Bookshelf: Choosing a Sustainable Future

By Liz Walker

In Ithaca, NY a new culture is blossoming - one that values cooperation, local production, environmental stewardship, social justice and creativity. Ithaca is showing the way to meet the challenges of the day with a wide variety of practical, real-world solutions.

Choosing a Sustainable Future allows readers to explore this town and its

* farmers markets, overflowing with fresh, local produce
* award-winning community credit union that triples the savings of low-income people
* flagship college sustainability programs
* alternative transportation programs, such as Ithaca Carshare
* coalitions of local business, university, government and activists to create green building, city planning, health and wellness.

Liz Walker co-founded and has directed EcoVillage at Ithaca since its inception in 1991, and has lived there with her family since the first buildings were completed. She has worked on all aspects of the community's development, and has written and lectured widely on the topic.

Camden NJ: America's worst off city

Chris Hedge, Nation - The city's real unemployment¬hard to estimate, since many residents have been severed from the formal economy for generations¬is probably 30–40 percent. The median household income is $24,600. There is a 70 percent high school dropout rate, with only 13 percent of students managing to pass the state's proficiency exams in math. The city is planning $28 million in draconian budget cuts, with officials talking about cutting 25 percent from every department, including layoffs of nearly half the police force. The proposed slashing of the public library budget by almost two-thirds has left the viability of the library system in doubt. . .

Camden is where those discarded as human refuse are dumped, along with the physical refuse of postindustrial America. A sprawling sewage treatment plant on forty acres of riverfront land processes 58 million gallons of wastewater a day for Camden County. The stench of sewage lingers in the streets. There is a huge trash-burning plant that releases noxious clouds, a prison, a massive cement plant and mountains of scrap metal feeding into a giant shredder. The city is scarred with several thousand decaying abandoned row houses; the skeletal remains of windowless brick factories and gutted gas stations; overgrown vacant lots filled with garbage and old tires; neglected, weed-filled cemeteries; and boarded-up store fronts.

Father Michael Doyle, an Irish priest, has been in the Sacred Heart parish for thirty-five years. . . "Today's a very hard time to be poor," says Father Doyle, seated in the church rectory. "Because you know you're poor. You hear people my age get up and say, 'We were poor. We put cardboard in our shoes.' We talk like that. But we didn't know we were poor. Today you do. And how do you know you're poor? Your television shows you that you're poor. So it's very easy to build up anger in a, say, a high-voltage kid of 17. He knows he's poor, he looks at the TV and all these people have everything and I have nothing. And so he's very angry."

Dave Brubeck turns 90

Marc Myers, Wall Street Journal - Clean living, a happy marriage and global popularity have made Mr. Brubeck a media darling¬and a target of envy. "Even in the '50s I'd hear critics and musicians say, 'Oh, Brubeck, he's different'¬meaning separate from the rest," Mr. Brubeck said. "Others described my music as West Coast cool or light. Listen to our version of 'Look for the Silver Lining' from 1952. Tell me, what's cool about that?"

Mr. Brubeck also has taken heat for prospering in a profession that isn't supposed to pay well. "It never has," he responded dryly. "My wife Iola and I were always very careful with our money. When I started out, Joe the butcher in our San Francisco neighborhood would ask me weekly if I wanted beef bones for our dog. He knew we didn't have a dog. I'd take them to make soup. I'd also go to the farmer's market to pick up discarded fruits and vegetables. We saved every penny."

Despite his charmed image, Mr. Brubeck has had his share of close calls. In World War II, at the Battle of the Bulge, his military band's truck wound up behind enemy lines and Mr. Brubeck was nearly shot when he forgot the password at a U.S. checkpoint screening for English-speaking Germans.

If Robert Gates had been defense secretary a few decades ago

To give some historical context to Secretary Gates remarks on DADT, we have changed a few words in his statement. You will not have a hard time finding which ones.

Secretary Gates: This past February, I established a high-level working group to review the issues associated with implementing a repeal of the law regarding women and blacks serving in the military and, based on those findings, to develop recommendations for implementation, should the law change. . .

The findings of their report reflect nearly ten months of research and analysis along several lines of study, and represent the most thorough and objective review ever of this difficult policy issue and its impact on the American military. . .

The working group undertook this through a variety of means ¬ from a mass survey answered by tens of thousands of troops and their spouses to meetings with small groups and individuals, including hearing from those discharged under the current law. ...

The findings suggest that for large segments of the military repeal of the law though potentially disruptive in the short term, would not be the wrenching, traumatic change that many have feared and predicted.

With regards to readiness, the working group report concluded that overall, and with thorough preparation ¬ and I emphasize thorough preparation ¬ there is a low risk from repealing the law about women and blacks. However, as I mentioned earlier, the survey data showed that a higher proportion ¬ between 40 and 60 percent ¬ of those troops serving in predominantly all-male combat specialties ¬ mostly Army and Marines, but including the special operations formations of the Navy and Air Force ¬ predicted a negative effect on unit cohesion from repealing the current law. . . .

In my view, the concerns of combat troops as expressed in the survey do not present an insurmountable barrier to a successful repeal of the law. This can be done, and it should be done, without posing a serious risk to military readiness. However, these findings do lead me to conclude that an abundance of care and preparation is required if we are to avoid a disruptive ¬ and potentially dangerous ¬ impact on the performance of those serving at the tip of the spear in America’s wars.

NY Times & Washington Post: All the leaks that don't embarrass us

Gareth Porter, Counterpunch - A diplomatic cable from last February released by Wikileaks provides a detailed account of how Russian specialists on the Iranian ballistic missile program refuted the U.S. suggestion that Iran has missiles that could target European capitals or intends to develop such a capability. In fact, the Russians challenged the very existence of the mystery missile the U.S. claims Iran acquired from North Korea.

But readers of the two leading U.S. newspapers never learned those key facts about the document. The New York Times and Washington Post reported only that the United States believed Iran had acquired such missiles - supposedly called the BM-25 - from North Korea. Neither newspaper reported the detailed Russian refutation of the U.S. view on the issue or the lack of hard evidence for the BM-25 from the U.S. side.

The Times, which had obtained the diplomatic cables not from Wikileaks but from The Guardian, according to a Washington Post story Monday, did not publish the text of the cable. The Times story said the newspaper had made the decision not to publish "at the request of the Obama administration". That meant that its readers could not compare the highly- distorted account of the document in the Times story against the original document without searching the Wikileaks website.

As a result, a key Wikileaks document which should have resulted in stories calling into question the thrust of the Obama administration's ballistic missile defense policy in Europe based on an alleged Iranian missile threat has instead produced a spate of stories buttressing anti-Iran hysteria.

Summary of Green Party Wins for 2010

Total candidates running: 339

Wins for the year: 34

Win rate for the year: 10%

Incumbents re-elected: 26

Overheard

Guy: So I just read the new Mark Twain autobiography.

Woman: Oh that’s sounds interesting. Who wrote it?

-Reagan National Airport

Why does one multibillionaire get to decide our education policy?

Diane Ravitch, Ed Week - The struggle for control of American education continues to evolve at a dizzying pace. I read that Bill Gates advised the Council of Chief State School Officers to eliminate seniority and tenure and recommended that schools stop spending to reduce class size and stop giving teachers extra money for master's degrees. He wants teachers to get paid based on "performance" (i.e., their test scores). I guess we are now seeing a full-court effort to impose the corporate model of school reform, and Gates is the leading spokesman.

No, wait, I take that back, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said something very similar in a speech a day or two earlier, where he seemed almost happy to say that the days of wine and roses are over and schools must learn to do more with less. They seem to be sharing scripts. I don't know who is the leading spokesman. . .

Since Gates is a multibillionaire, he can't possibly understand what it means to work in an environment where you might be fired for disagreeing with your boss. Nor can he possibly understand that schools are collaborative cultures that need senior teachers who are ready and willing to help newcomers. He can't imagine that school is different from Microsoft or other big corporations. Let's be honest. CCSSO and The New York Times pay attention to what Gates says because he is so rich. If he didn't run the biggest foundation in the world, if he wasn't one of the richest men in the world, would anyone care about his opinion of education?

Random acts of culture


Dadeland Mall, Florida

House GOP already censoring art

Advocate - It’s 1989 all over again in Washington, D.C., as House speaker designate John Boehner of Ohio and incoming House majority leader Eric Cantor of Virginia have called for the dismantling of a Smithsonian exhibit focused on same-sex attraction.

The congressmen’s efforts are already paying off, as officials at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery, where the exhibit¬“Hide/Seek”¬is being shown, have agreed to remove one controversial piece, a video by David Wojnarowicz, The Washington Post reports. The gallery was exhibiting a four-minute video by Wojnarowicz, a gay artist who died from AIDS in 1992, that includes 11 seconds of a crucifix with ants crawling on it.

Boehner spokesman Kevin Smith told the conservative website CNSNews.com that “Smithsonian officials should either acknowledge the mistake and correct it, or be prepared to face tough scrutiny beginning in January when the new majority in the House moves [in].” Smith later added that his boss wants the exhibit “canceled.”

Cantor said he wants the exhibit “pulled” and that it’s “an outrageous use of taxpayer money.”

Obama sorry he didn't suck up more to GOP

NY Times - During their first meeting since the midterm elections rearranged the power map in Washington, Mr. Obama told Representative John A. Boehner, the incoming House speaker, and Senator Mitch McConnell, the Senate Republican leader, that he regretted not reaching out to them more in his first two years in office and vowed to do better.

Father's child custory cut because he's an agnostic

Alternet - A father is fighting back after losing custody of his children in Indiana. Craig Scarberry has shared 50/50 custody of his three kids with his ex-wife for 4 years. But when that time was just recently reduced to 4 hours per week, he started digging to find out why, and he had a shocker. The Judge wrote, "The father did not participate in the same religious training as the mother . father was agnostic." The ruling also stated, "when the father considered himself a Christian, the parties were able to communicate relatively effectively."

Department of Good News

Transportation secretary Ray LaHood has reversed his department's plan to require upper and lower case on all street signs across the country. The rule, revealed by ABC News, would have caused one city $2 million in new signs. Says LaHood: "I believe that this regulation makes no sense. It does not properly take into account the high costs that local governments would have to bear. States, cities, and towns should not be required to spend money that they don't have to replace perfectly good traffic signs."

Major California estate sells for less than 50% of list price

Business Insider - Portabello, meaning "beautiful door," in Italian could not be a better name for [a] gorgeous ocean front property in Orange County, California, [that] just sold for $34.1 million, according the Wall Street Journal. And $34.1 million is a steal considering the home was on the market a year ago for $75 million. Frank Pitt, founder of Attachmate, listed The Portabello Estate for $75 million in 2006, took it off the market a year later, and relisted it earlier this year for $49.6 million.

ACLU receives more than 900 complaints over TSA abuse

The American Civil Liberties Union has received over 900 complaints in the month of November from travelers who have been subjected to the Transportation Security Authority’s new “enhanced” screening procedures. Most of the complaints, which were submitted through an online form on the ACLU’s website, came from travelers who reported feeling humiliated and traumatized by the procedures.

Good year for instant runoff voting

Fair Vote - As reported in the New York Times, ranked choice voting's first use in Oakland (CA) was a major factor in the first-ever election of an Asian American woman to be mayor of a major American city. Heavily outspent, Jean Quan trailed by 9% in first choices. She surged into the lead in the ranked-choice tally, however, thanks to the fact that she had reached out effectively to more Oakland voters than her top opponent. RCV also changed first-round outcomes in nearby San Leandro and San Francisco and avoided a runoff in Berkeley.

Maine's largest city, Portland, adopted RCV for its mayoral elections starting in 2011, and its controversial race for governor was won with less than 50% for the 6th time in its last 7 such elections - a non-majority outcome also reflected in more than a dozen races for the US Senate and state governorships nationally. The Portland Press Herald suggests its time for a new politics, with RCV being featured as what could contribute to such a change.

In another state with a string of non-majority statewide election winners, the Minneapolis Star-Tribune also backed RCV.

Finally, more than 1.9 million voters in North Carolina cast RCV ballots in the nation's first-ever statewide general election with RCV -- more ballots were cast in the RCV election than most other races for the same kind of office. Leading state papers are calling for extending it to more elections.

Following TSA's logic

Paul Craig Roberts, Information Clearinghouse - It doesn’t take a bureaucrat long to create an empire. John Pistole, the FBI agent who took over the Transportation Security Administration on July 1 told USA Today 16 days later that protecting trains and subways from terrorist attacks will be as high a priority for him as air travel.

It is difficult to imagine New Yorkers being porno-screened and sexually groped on crowed subway platforms or showing up an hour or two in advance for clearance for a 15 minute subway ride, but once bureaucrats get the bit in their teeth they take absurdity to its logical conclusion. Buses will be next, although it is even more difficult to imagine open air bus stops turned into security zones with screeners and gropers inspecting passengers before they board.

Will taxi passengers be next? In those Muslim lands whose citizens the US government has been slaughtering for years, favorite weapons for retaliating against the Americans are car and truck bombs. How long before Pistole announces that the TSA Gestapo is setting up roadblocks on city streets, highways and interstates to check cars for bombs? That 15 minute trip to the grocery store then becomes an all day affair.

Indeed, it has already begun. Last September agents from Homeland Security, TSA, and the US Department of Transportation, assisted by the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office, conducted a counter-terrorism operation on busy Interstate 20 just west of Atlanta, Georgia. Designated VIPER (Visible Inter-mobile Prevention and Response), the operation required all trucks to stop to be screened for bombs. Federal agents used dogs, screening devices, and a large drive-through bomb detection machine. Imagine what the delays did to delivery schedules and truckers’ bottom lines.

Political wimp of the week

Paul Mickle, City Editor, Trentonian - Any questions from The Trentonian for Mayor Tony Mack now have to be submitted in writing via e-mail ¬ the refuge of the politician who can’t think on his feet.

Mack came out with the latest dictate about the release of public information to the public after the newspaper learned the mayor also has put up what amounts to a ban on The Trentonian in the offices of the top bosses at City Hall.

The latest tactic for dealing with those pesky reporters who supposedly twist everything around and ask only impertinent questions came two days after Mack’s people said the mayor had decided he would not comment at all to The Trentonian.

Corporados at play

A New York holding company was granted the trademark for "Daytona Beach Bike Week" for only $87.50, and has begun sending letters threatening to "take all legal actions to protect its rights" against Daytona Beach businesses that produce or sell merchandise with that name, according to a News-JournalOnline.com report. The report says the Daytona Regional Chamber of Commerce, which manages the annual event, has hired a law firm to contest the company's claim and block its bid for a federal trademark. - Orlando Sentinel

Great moments in journalism

Editors Weblog - USA Today has only five reporters covering Congress, but 27 covering entertainment news, the Gannett Blog reported, after its editor Jim Hopkins obtained copies of newsroom flow charts dated October 21-22. The document showing the distribution of staff shows that as well as the five staff allocated to Congress/Politics, there are another six assigned to White House/Legal, another four to Federal and five to Economy/Jobs. This total number covering political issues is still less than the 27 focused on entertainment however, which accounts for by far the largest group.

Why smart growth is dumb

Gary Imhoff, DC Watch - The faddish preference among urban planners today, under the guise of Smart Growth, is for congestion and crowding in urban centers - planning for apartment buildings rather than single-family houses, for small houses rather than large ones, eliminating yards and other “unnecessary” green spaces in city centers, eliminating height limitations to encourage high rises and skyscrapers, discouraging car ownership and making driving difficult for residents and commuters. Urban planners are being trained to impose these choices on residents, rather than to defer to the preferences of residents, because residents are too dumb to know what is best for them and their cities, and experts know best what those residents should want.

Over the past century, vigilant protection by neighborhood activists has preserved many of the best things about the District of Columbia. In the early decades of the twentieth century, neighborhood associations and residential groups introduced and kept the height limitation that made DC a livable city of pleasant residential neighborhoods, rather than an overbuilt concrete jungle. In the middle of the twentieth century, neighborhood activists fought the urban planners whose faddish expertise then called for crisscrossing the city with freeways that would cut up and divide neighborhoods. Now neighborhood activists are again fighting the urban planning experts.

Local heroes: Bill Matthews

Valerie Strauss, Washington Post - Jones County School District near Macon, Ga., headed by Superintendent Bill Mathews has decided not to accept $1.3 million in Race to the Top money -- the district’s share of Georgia’s $400 million pot -- for reasons including his refusal to implement a value-added assessment system for teachers, based on student standardized test scores. (The county had signed up for the money before Mathews became superintendent last year.)

Assessment experts say these systems should not be used to evaluate teachers, pointing to new research that indicates they are not reliable and error rates are unacceptably high, but they are supported anyway by the Obama administration. Many of these systems are seen by teachers as ignoring other factors beside a teacher’s influence that can affect a student's performance on a standardized test.

And that’s why Mathews decided not to accept the money and why the county school board went along with his recommendation.

Mathews was quoted in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that the research doesn't bear out the effectiveness of these systems, and that implementing one would be too expensive. He said that educating children in the county’s public schools is a team effort by all of the adults in the building, and that singling out the teachers in this way would be wrong.

“My philosophy has always been that from the front door to the back door, from the secretary to the lunchroom worker, [everyone] is responsible for the student achievement of every child,” Mathews was quoted as saying. “We set our goals and if we meet our goals, we all celebrate.”

We’d all be a lot better off if there were more Bill Mathewses out there running our public school districts.

Terrifying fun fact of the day

Rep. John Duncan – Listen to this paragraph from a front-page story in the USA Today last November: “Since 9/11, more than three dozen Federal air marshals have been charged with crimes, and hundreds more have been accused of misconduct. Cases range from drunken driving and domestic violence to aiding a human-trafficking ring and trying to smuggle explosives from Afghanistan.''We now have approximately 4,000 in the Federal Air Marshals Service, yet they have made an average of just 4.2 arrests a year since 2001. This comes out to an average of about one arrest a year per 1,000 employees

UN report: Food prices may rise 20%

Observer, Uk - Poor harvests put global food reserves under pressure, with African and Asian countries likely to be worst hit. The UN warned that food prices could rise by 10%-20% next year after poor harvests and an expected rundown of global reserves. More than 70 African and Asian countries will be the worst hit, said the Food and Agricultural Organisation in its monthly report.

Prices of wheat, maize and many other foods traded internationally have risen by up to 40% in just a few months. Sugar, butter and cassava prices are at 30-year highs, and meat and fish are both significantly more expensive than last year.

Food price inflation – fuelled by price speculation, the searing heatwave in Russia in the summer and heavy trading on futures markets – is now running at up to 15% a year in some countries. According to the UN, international food import bills could pass the $1tn mark, with prices in most commodities up sharply from 2009.

Extreme volatility in the world markets has taken the UN by surprise and forced it to reassess its forecasts for next year. "Rarely have markets exhibited this level of uncertainty and sudden turns in such a brief period of time. World cereal production this year, which is currently put at 2,216m tonnes, is 2% below 2009 levels, 63m tonnes less than the forecast reported in June," said the authors.

Beatles sales soar on iTunes

Guardian, UK - EMI has sold more than 450,000 Beatles albums via Apple's iTunes store in the seven days since the band's entire back catalogue was made available to download digitally. The music company said 2 million Beatles singles have also been downloaded. An EMI insider hailed it as "a pretty amazing achievement". Despite that success, however, only one song – Hey Jude – had reached the British top 40 on Sunday.

Pill shows a drop of up to 70% in HIV infection risk

LA Times - In a finding that is being widely hailed as the first major prevention breakthrough in the AIDS era, researchers have shown that taking a single daily pill containing two HIV drugs can reduce risk of contracting the virus by an average of 44% ¬ and by more than 70% if the subjects take most of their pills.

Little places

Kyle VanHemert, Gizmodo - Tiny houses are not uncommon, especially in Tokyo. But Fuyuhito Moriya's three-story pad (which he bravely shares with his mother) is among the most impressive I've ever seen. It sits atop a single parking space.

When Fuyuhito Moriya, 39, purchased his 30 square meter plot of land in Tokyo, it was advertised as a spot to park a car. He decided to park himself and his mother there instead¬a project that took $500,000 and a lot of architectural ingenuity.

Moriya's living room is small¬about the size of walk in closet¬and things are hidden behind every wall, stuffed into every corner. The spiral staircase that connects the three floors¬Moriya couldn't build horizontally, so he built vertically¬is triangular instead of circular, allowing for a tighter diameter. Sinks look like they were cut in half. Windows are oversized to let in as much light as possible.

WiFi killing trees study finds

CNET - The tree-loving folks of Dutch city Alphen aan den Rijn commissioned the study after finding abnormalities on trees that couldn't be explained by known viral or bacterial infections. Over the last five years, the study found that all deciduous trees in the western world are affected by radiation from mobile-phone networks and wireless LANs.
Over 70 per cent of trees in urban areas in the Netherlands are afflicted by Wi-Fi sickness, displaying significant variations in growth, and bleeding and fissures in their bark. That's compared with just 10 per cent showing symptoms five years ago. Meanwhile, trees in wooded areas remain happy and healthy, untroubled by wireless unwellness.

Obama pimped for body scanners in India

Raw Story - The CEO of one of the two companies licensed to sell full body scanners to the TSA accompanied President Barack Obama to India earlier this month, a clear sign of the deep ties between Washington politicians and the companies pushing to have body scanners installed at all US airports. Deepak Chopra, chairman and CEO of OSI Systems and no relation to the New Age spiritualist, was one of a number of CEOs who traveled with the president on his three-day trip to India, which focused primarily on expanding business ties between the US and the emerging Asian power.

Chopra's company manufactures the Rapiscan brand of body scanners, currently being deployed across US airports. He joined the CEOs of such companies as GE, PepsiCo and United Technologies on the trip. The president announced commercial deals worth some $10 billion during the trip, which he said would add some 50,000 jobs to the US economy. India decided earlier this year to implement body scanners at its airports, in the wake of the 2008 Mumbai attacks. (An early experiment with body scanners was quickly scuttled in 2007 due to privacy concerns.)

Gore admits corn ethanol was not a good idea

Reuters - Former U.S. vice-president Al Gore said support for corn-based ethanol in the United States was "not a good policy", weeks before tax credits are up for renewal. U.S. blending tax breaks for ethanol make it profitable for refiners to use the fuel even when it is more expensive than gasoline. The credits are up for renewal on Dec. 31.

"It is not a good policy to have these massive subsidies for (U.S.) first generation ethanol," said Gore, speaking at a green energy business conference in Athens sponsored by Marfin Popular Bank. "First generation ethanol I think was a mistake. The energy conversion ratios are at best very small.

Telecommuters happier than office workers

Tree Hugger - A new study says teleworkers are more "satisfied" with their jobs than traditional keep-a-desk-warm or be-watched-by-your-supervisor workers. The reason: Working remotely alleviates more stress than it creates. Participants in the study also said they benefit from "decreased work-life conflict" and a flexible work schedule. The study results appear in the November issue of the Journal of Applied Communication Research, published by the National Communication Association.

Bringing good food to the convenience store

Alternet - In 2008 the American Journal of Epidemiology reported that people with no supermarket near their homes were up to 46 percent less likely to eat a healthy diet than those with more shopping options. Urbane Development contracts with cities, states, municipalities, public health agencies and developers to bring healthy food into neighborhood stores that specialize in the likes of chips, soft drinks, and candy. Such stores are often the only options for miles, and have become the focus of public health advocates.

High speed derail

Sam Smith

To understand why Obama's high speed rail efforts are stumbling, it may help to consider the reaction if the same principles were applied to funding air travel, in which case the bulk of the money would go to subsidizing business and first class.

For example, one can travel on a regular train along the Washington-Boston corridor for about a half of what it costs to go by Acela. Not surprisingly, Acela has about 45% the ridership of the regular service. In fact, according to one Amtrak study, Acela was twenty percent more costly than flying.

Thus high speed rail - as your major long-range transportation policy - make a lot of sense either a practical or political point of view, and reflects an increasingly, albeit often unintentional bias, towards the culture of campaign contributors and upscale liberals over that of other Americans.

Yet in all the articles I've read on the topic - written of course by journalists used to travel allowances - there has been hardly a mention of the class content of this issue.

A more reasonable approach would be to improve ordinary rail and bus service, wich would have the added advantage of not only meeting the needs of more people but would economically open up areas - especially in the American heartland - that have been suffering.

A modest goal would be to end up with as many rail miles as we had about a century ago. We peaked at 254,000 miles in 1916; today we have only 55% as much.

Sam Smith, February 2009 - There's nothing wrong with high speed rail except that when your country is really hurting, when your rail system largely falls behind other countries' because of lack of tracks rather than lack of velocity, and when high speed rail appeals more to bankers than to folks scared of foreclosing homes, it's a strange transit program to feature in something called a stimulus bill.

One might even call it an $8 billion earmark.

I watched this development with a sense of deja vu. Long ago, I was a rare critic of DC's Metro subway plans, not because I was against mass transit, but because it was a highly inefficient way of spending mass transit funds compared to light rail or exclusive bus lanes. At the time we could have had ten times as many miles of light rail for the same price of the subway system.

The other day I was struck by Metro bragging about its record ridership during the Obama inauguration. I was one of the few people in town who noticed that Metro had finally achieved what it had, at the beginning, promised the federal government would be normal. We needed a first black president to get that many riders. Further, Metro doesn't even have the capacity to handle that many people on a regular basis.

Other problems I correctly projected included the fact that Metro wouldn't really compete with the automobile but with its own bus lines, that it was more of a land development than a transit scheme, and that auto traffic would increase as the subway encouraged new buildings but that a majority of the new users of these buildings would still come by car.

I mention these examples because they illustrate the sort of complexity that transit planning involves, a complexity that rarely gets any attention in the media or by politicians. There's nothing like something as streamlined as a bullet to make everyone put away doubts, analysis and comparisons and just sit back and say, "Wow."

The problem became permanently embedded in my mind after I asked a transportation engineer to identify the best form of mass transit. His immediate answer: "Stop people from moving around so much." So simple, yet so wise and so alien to almost every discussion of the topic you will hear.

If we were really smart, we would be spending far more effort, for example, on redesigning neighborhoods so travel isn't so necessary. What if every urban neighborhood had minibus service to help people get to necessary services? Or a business center with high quality video conference and other equipment so that more people could work at home often?

Instead we are planning to spend $8 billion so that people who already travel more than they should can do it faster and easier.

Of course, there are plenty of political reasons for this. The extraordinary power of the highway lobby remains undiminished, as does the fear of the trucking industry that freight trains might take a major portion of their business away albeit making more sense economically and ecologically.

One map of proposed routes shows not only high speed service to Las Vegas, home of the Senate majority leader, but a surprising number of routes spreading out from the Chicago of Barack Obama and Rahm Emanuel.

Wrote Jon Hilkevitch in the Chicago Tribune: "The ambitious project proposed for the Midwest would cover 3,000 miles in nine states. All lines would radiate from a hub in downtown Chicago. The cost of a fully completed Midwest network is estimated at almost $8 billion. . . Modern, comfortable, double-deck trains with wide seats and large windows would churn along at top speeds of 110 m.p.h. The faster trains would shave hours off trips, delivering passengers from one downtown to another hundreds of miles away. Amtrak trains in most of the Midwest now operate at up to 79 m.p.h., although average speeds are much slower, especially around Chicago due to freight traffic."
And there's also the plan to electrify the route between San Jose and Nancy Pelosi's San Francisco.

The truth is that conventional rail and bus riders aren't powerful enough to get what they need. Even upscale liberals prefer air or high speed rail. In the end, there's no strong constituency for the ordinary rider.

As a result of such things, we can expect more than a fair share of hype and hokum as the high rail projects get underway. But here are a few real things to also keep in mind:

Building new conventional rail lines would have had a much stronger effect on the economy than merely speeding up existing routes. Beyond the benefits of construction and the system itself, there would be the economic opportunities created along the route, just as happened when we first built rail and our country at the same time. Philip Longman in an excellent Washington Monthly article, writes, "Railroads have gone from having too much track to having not enough."

When moving freight, speed is just not that important. An example can be found in a towboat pushing more freight up the Mississippi River than all the steamboats of Mark Twain's time. Why does this lethargic system work so well? Simply because it's not the speed but the capacity that matters. As long as what's on the barges keep coming, how fast it comes doesn't really matter.

Passenger rail capacity is also important. We don't know what the real capacity of these high speed systems will be but we can guess that the railroads won't have large numbers of spare trains waiting around for the Christmas season. Conventional rail uses easily coupled old equipment to adjust for peaks, but high speed rail is so expensive that it is more likely to fall short. For example, Trains for America describes the problem with the high speed Acela: "The trains now run with an engine at each end. While that step speeds turnarounds when the Acela finishes its route and then reverses direction, reconfiguring trains to add coaches would be 'very difficult and very time consuming,' spokeswoman Karina Romero said. Amtrak also doesn't have any spare Acela passenger cars, so extending the trains would require buying more custom-built coaches, she said."

The trucking lobby. Philip Longman notes that "In a study recently presented to the National Academy of Engineering, the Millennium Institute, a nonprofit known for its expertise in energy and environmental modeling, calculated the likely benefits of an expenditure of $250 billion to $500 billion on improved rail infrastructure. It found that such an investment would get 85 percent of all long-haul trucks off the nation's highways by 2030."
High speed trains can become a pollution problem. The progressive journalist George Monbiot has reported: "Though trains traveling at normal speeds have much lower carbon emissions than airplanes, Professor Roger Kemp of Lancaster University shows that energy consumption rises dramatically at speeds above 125 miles per hour. Increasing the speed from 140 to 220 mph almost doubles the amount of fuel burned. If the trains are powered by electricity, and if that electricity is produced by plants burning fossil fuels, they cause more CO2 emissions than planes."

Where the Japanese model stumbles. A letter to the Cleveland Plain Dealer points out that "The population density of the major fast-train-using countries averages two-plus times that of Ohio (Japan's is 3.3 times); gasoline prices are 2.2 times the Ohio price; airport congestion is worse; and regulated airfares to convenient airports are higher than comparable U.S. destinations. What's more, arrival at a train terminal in a European or Japanese city often places you within walking distance of the major commercial and tourist locations. Not so in the United States. . . I have used high-speed trains many times and they are great, but building and operating them would be a major financial drain in Ohio."

The cost factor: Based on the only example we have in the United States, high speed rail is substantially more expensive and serves a wealthier class of riders. Even conventional Amtrak business class is $16 cheaper than Acela even though in conventional business class you get more leg room, much more space to stow your gear, a free newspaper and free coffee and soft drinks. And all this costs you is one extra half hour ride under more pleasant conditions.

Cost of building high speed routes: Here's what the NY Times had to say the other day: "[The stimulus bill] will not be enough to pay for a single bullet train, transportation experts say. And by the time the $8 billion gets divided among the 11 regions across the country that the government has designated as high-speed rail corridors, it is unlikely to do much beyond paying for long-delayed improvements to passenger lines, and making a modest investment in California's plan for a true bullet train. In the short term, the money - inserted at the 11th hour by the White House - could put people to work improving tracks, crossings and signal systems." A completed California system alone is expected to cost about $45 billion.

A major reason for the high cost: building exclusive tracks for the high speed trains. Even though Acela, for example, can theoretically hit 150 miles an hour, it only averages 84 mph between NYC and Washington, in part because of stops and in part because it uses improved conventional tracks. It only hits full speed on about 35 miles in Massachusetts and Rhode Island.

But this raises an important and almost entirely undiscussed question. Is the huge expense of exclusive track high speed rail preferable to spending the money on expanding conventional service to many more passengers?

Ridership: Costs are changing, however, thanks to other problems. Back in August, the Boston Globe cheerfully reported:

"Amtrak may add cars to its Acela, the fastest US passenger train, and raise fares as riders fill coaches on the Washington-to-Boston route, chief executive officer Alexander Kummant said. Demand for the high-speed service also may spur Amtrak to levy a surcharge to help buy additional equipment, Kummant said."

But with the new year, Trains for America was telling a different story:

"While Amtrak ridership, generally speaking, has continued to look fairly healthy despite the poor economy and lower fuel prices, the same cannot be said of the its Acela high-speed service on the Northeast Corridor. The recession has led to a decrease in business travel, prompting the company to reduce Acela fares in order to bring in more leisure travelers.

Even before the downturn, however, the Acela ridership reports were less than stunning. For example, in the last fiscal year the conventional northeast coast regional service rose 9.5% while Acela ridershp only went up 6.5%.

Meanwhile other conventional service was booming. The Keystone Service, which operates between Harrisburg, Philadelphia, and New York City, rose 20 percent. The Downeaster, operating several times daily between Portland, Maine and Boston, Mass., grew 31 percent, despite being slower than an express bus because of all of its stops. Chicago-Wisconsin Hiawatha service was up nearly 26 percent. And the Kansas City to St. Louis route grew more than 30 percent.

Some other traditional train routes that grew more than twice as much as the high speed Acela: Oakland-Sacramento, Northern California's Capitol Corridor service, and Chicago-San Antonio.

Other uses: Philip Longman, in his Washington Monthly article, reminds us of alternative uses of conventional rail that seldom get mentioned. Some past examples: "The Pacific Fruit Growers Express delivered fresh California fruits and vegetables to the East Coast using far less energy and labor than today's truck fleets. . . . The Railway Express Agency, which attached special cars to passenger trains, provided Americans with a level of express freight service that cannot be had for any price today, offering door-to-door delivery of everything from canoes to bowls of tropical fish to, in at least one instance, a giraffe. . . . High-speed Railway Post Office trains also offered efficient mail service to even the smallest towns which is not matched today. In his book Train Time, Harvard historian and rail expert John R. Stilgoe describes the Pennsylvania Railroad's Fast Mail train No. 11, which, because of its speed and on-board crew of fast sorting mail clerks, ensured next-day delivery on a letter mailed with a standard two-cent stamp in New York to points as far west as Chicago. Today, that same letter is likely to travel by air first to FedEx's Memphis hub, then be unloaded, sorted, and reloaded onto another plane, a process that demands far greater expenditures of money, carbon, fuel, and, in many instances, time than the one used eighty years ago. . . Another potential use of steel wheel interstates would be auto trains."


The big advantage of high speed rail is that the media, politicians and upper class love the idea and are happy to promote it without asking any of the hard questions. But it's worth remembering that after Washington and San Francisco blew huge sums on subways, city planners finally got wise and started looking at less expensive transit systems that were more efficient in every regard except speed. And so, Washington is today finally working towards having its first light rail route in 47 years.

Finally, there is a lot of talk about how the Obama administration is a second New Deal. But the first New Deal would never have spent huge sums on super trains for the better off; it would have expanded decent if unexotic rail service for ordinary folks. Today you can hardly even get Democrats to talk about such things.

Janet Napolitano has long history of tolerating abuse of law enforcement

Tom Zoellner, Slate, 2008 - Napolitano has looked the other way on police excess when political calculation demanded it, as well as tolerated the questionable use of local sheriff's deputies to serve as a roving immigration patrol. All of this can be traced to her friendship with the media-obsessed Sheriff Joe Arpaio of Maricopa County, Ariz.. . .who rose to prominence in the 1990s with such newsmaking stunts as feeding his inmates green bologna, clothing them in pink underwear, housing them in surplus Army tents behind barbed wire in the desert, and putting them to work on chain gangs. This punishment is inflicted equally on convicted criminals and those who have been convicted of no crime at all but are awaiting trial and unable to afford bail. Inmates who assault guards are put on rations of water and fortified bread. . .


More than a decade ago, Napolitano was in a position to help curb Arpaio's excesses. As a U.S. attorney in 1995, she was put in charge of a Justice Department investigation into atrocious conditions in Arpaio's "tent city." Napolitano carried out her task with what can best be described as reluctance, going out of her way to protect Arpaio from flak almost before the probe had started. . .

The Justice Department's final report, issued about two years later, confirmed a list of disgraces, including excessive use of force, gratuitous use of pepper spray and "restraint chairs" (since blamed for at least three inmate deaths), and hog-tying and beating of inmates. It also said Arpaio's staffing was "below levels needed for safety and humane operations."

The Justice Department filed suit and settled with the sheriff the same day after Arpaio agreed to administrative changes, including limiting the use of pepper spray and improving inmate grievance procedures. Napolitano stood with Arpaio at a press conference in which she, according to the Arizona Republic, "pooh-poohed her own lawsuit as 'lawyerly paperwork.' " Arpaio called the result a vindication.

Car thieves have more important things on their minds than stereos

WLS, Chicago - Scrap rates for recycled platinum and other precious metals have risen. That means catalytic converters are again being targeted by thieves. Oak Park and River Forest have seen a rash of catalytic converter thefts from cars recently. . All modern vehicles have catalytic converters, which filter out toxins from car exhaust. The precious metals used in catalytic converters are platinum, rhodium and palladium. Their function is to oxidize deadly carbon monoxide engine emissions into harmless carbon dioxide and oxidize unburned gasoline hydrocarbons.

Great thoughts of the right

Phyllis Schlafly: "Unmarried women, 70% of unmarried women, voted for Obama, and this is because when you kick your husband out, you've got to have big brother government to be your provider,"

Word

Noam Chomsky: Unions are hated, but remember that everything is hated. Congress is hated; bankers are hated; political parties are hated. People hate everything. They think everything is rotten. It's kind of similar to Germany in the early '30s where all the institutions were collapsing. You get a charismatic leader, so okay, we'll follow him.

Kentucky homeland security is an act of God

Alternet - Nearly every member of the Kentucky House of Representatives and Senate has signed a court brief demanding that the state be permitted to acknowledge “reliance upon Almighty God” in its Homeland Security department. The controversy started last year after Franklin Circuit Court ruled that provisions in two laws requiring the Kentucky Office of Homeland Security to acknowledge God were a violation of church-state separation.

Test scores show common sense left behind in school reform

What was all the fuss about? 12th grade reading scores since 1992

While there has been some improvement in math test scores in the nation's public schools roughly ten percent since 1992 or about a half a percent a year - there has been no statistically significant improvement in reading scores. According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, reading scores for 8th graders have stayed flat since 1992 and have increased all of a half a percent for those in fourth and 12th grade.

In other words, all those money spent, teachers fired, schools closed and media hype notwithstanding, the intrusion of the federal government on local schools has been a near total flop.


Judge orders destruction of dangerous GMO crop

Eleven years after the WTO uprising

TSA using pizza boxes to recruit staff

Banks modifying tiny percentage of mortgages in need

Lou Reed and Luciano Pavarotti

Recession cuts carbon emissions

64% of Brits want William, not Charles, as next king

ENDS

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